Jo Grimond’s Memoirs were by published by Heinemann way back in 1979 and I read my own copy sometime in the 1980’s. One day whilst in a second hand book shop a couple of years back I saw another copy and purchased it for my daughter Jen, a radical green, feminist Social Liberal. Then only a few days ago I put a podcast on my Facebook page (linked here – www.youtube.com/watch?v=dMJscTUAXMI) where Iain Brodie Browne was being interviewed in his capacity of Chair of the Social Liberal Forum. Jen saw saw the podcast and it reminded her of the book because Iain referenced Jo during the interview. She dug it out together with the notes she’d made whilst reading it – you can tell she’s an historian and researcher by trade.
And so 41 years after it was published the memoirs of a long gone politician are being reviewed and indeed challenged by my bit of a leftie daughter. I hope you find her views about Grimond as interesting as I found them.
Hearing Ian Brodie Browne mention Jo Grimond in his podcast interview reminded me of the book of his memoirs that my dad gave me, which I read last year.
It wasn’t really the kind of political memoir that leaves you inspired or fired up and I didn’t feel at the end like this was the work of a great Liberal statesman. What I did feel however was that it was the work of a man I’d rather like to share a pot of tea with. I suspect we’d have a fair few differences but he seems able to disagree well and he was clearly a man of deep thought on many things, a likeable man who would doubtless prove very interesting to chat with. Perhaps we should all be so lucky as to come across that way. Grimond raised some interesting points in his memoirs, though I have to say what seemed most interesting wasn’t actually his work in party politics but with United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) after WWII. He writes really well about it but not for long enough, I wanted more about that, especially as it seemed to sum up a lot of his Liberal ideas. There’s this great thing he says about:
“While it seems surprisingly easy to rebuild cities and industries, you cannot rebuild the lives of those driven from their homes.”
He sounds like he would have been a good man to have around to discuss the current refugee/migrant crisis of the last decade. He talks well about representation and diversity as well, saying there are “too few, not too may, Jews and immigrants in British political life.” I think that one bears repeating today!
To be honest quite a lot of it still feels relevant, there’s a great bit about the National Front where if you replace NF with the BNP it sounds like it could have been written in the last few years. Things don’t change. When he talks about the potential of a Lib/Lab pact in the 70s he says that electoral reform was the only thing that could justify it. We never did get bold enough on asking for that in collaboration talks, did we!
Of course he won himself some brownie points with me for his words on women. He says some wonderful things about how women have been overlooked and how slow progress has been. He also makes some remarks about male aggression and posturing in politics that mark him as probably a little ahead of his time for a wealthy white man.
However if that gained him points he certainly lost some when he touched on arts and culture.
“when I read that some British gallery has spent a million pounds on Italian pictures or French furniture ‘to save our heritage’ I think what fools it’s trustees must be.”
On this subject he rather exposes himself as a far too old-fashioned man of his time for my liking or comfort. He talks about wanting to see money invested in National Trust style properties, rather than in Chinese ceramics or the old Grand Masters (he literally says such thing are being hoarded ‘for the greater glory of curators’ which might be the silliest thing I’ve ever heard, as an insider I can tell you no one ever got into curating for the glory – not so politics!). He wants to see this change in investment because he views the National Trust type properties as ‘our heritage’ – basically proper British history. His idea of ‘our heritage’ is revealed here as pretty insular, not global in the least, and suggests an important lack of understanding on his part. A lot of Chinese ceramics for example were made for sale to the western market, it’s a fascinating early example of global supply and demand (these were often items that had no appeal in China itself, they were made purely for export) and became a key feature of British culture – what does he think we drank all that tea from! Where indeed does he imagine the tea and sugar came from? In reality British culture has been global for a long time, even when it didn’t want to admit it. He starts as though to make an interesting point about returning items to their place of origin (though again here shows no understanding of the fact some of these things were specifically made for export!) but then goes on to talk about it being better if you could go and visit a Canaletto painting on the Grand Canal i.e. where he thinks it should be, as though a trip to the Grand Canal were something anyone could just decide to undertake (a bit of rich white privilege rearing it’s head there)! It’s unclear if he really is making an early case for repatriation of significant artefacts looted by a colonialist Empire or if he just doesn’t think they’re of value here and ‘well why can’t people just go and visit them abroad’. Either way he makes the argument too ill (I mean talking about French furniture instead of say the Parthenon Marbles doesn’t suggest this is about ethics to him) and too briefly to have any merit. It’s in passages like this one he doesn’t come over well, I wouldn’t however imagine that many men of his time would do much better. And he makes an impassioned plea for saving architecture that I have to love. I too would like to see more investment in those National Trust type properties, but I don’t think they are the only example of ‘our heritage’, which is much more diverse than he acknowledges here. Let’s say he’s not a man I’d want representing us on culture. It also seems very much at odds with how open and global a person he seemed to be in all other regards.
I do love though that he seems to be a man of quiet conviction, that he thinks having values in politics is so important, and the way he says:
“Liberalism is not at bottom about the vote, it is about how human beings should behave to one another.”
Which might explain why he spends so little time in the book talking about actual politics, in his view I think you certainly see the political in the personal every day. It is a surprisingly politics light book for the memoirs of a political leader. I found a brief clip of a speech of his on youtube (about going in to Europe appropriately enough!) and he came over better than I’d expected. His writing is pleasant, he certainly comes over as a nice man, but not as a political charismatic force. He was more charismatic in person from the footage I could find.
One more thing he said, which I love and just think is very clever and very interesting was:
“had the computer been invented in the last century it would have been predicted that as the rise in population must require more horses we should all by now have been up to our knees in horse dung. Our children will profit from new inventions.”
It’s something I feel we could do with bearing in mind with climate change. The idea that we can’t use less energy because people’s lives would suffer, we need those fossil fuels to power hospitals, schools, industry! We don’t know that. We are trying to judge a possible future based on the understandings of today. Instead of wondering what to do with the horse shit, maybe we just won’t need the horses.
Boris Johnson, a man seemingly without a political compass, should maybe have read this.
Please click on the extracts from the book’s jacket cover notes to enlarge them for reading.